Bruce Lee passed away on 20 July, 1973. Forty-five years later his legacy lives on, as does speculation about the true nature of his death.
Bruce Lee officially died of an acute cerebral oedema – his brain swelled to 13% bigger than its regular size – which the Scotland-Yard-recommended forensic pathologist attributed to an adverse reaction to the painkiller he took, concluding that it was a ‘death by misadventure’.
However, much like with other larger-than-life icons who passed away in their prime, Marilyn Monroe and Tupac Shakur for instance, the official explanation for the cause of death has proven unsatisfactory for some. As a result, a variety of conspiracy theories about the true cause of Bruce’s death sprang up.
There were rumours that Bruce was killed by the Hong Kong Triads, for example. The supposed reason for killing him varies depending on who you ask, but the two main ones suppose that either he did not pay the protection money they requested or he refused to sign exclusive movie deals with them.
Some believe that Bruce was killed by other organised criminals, for example the American Mafia, supposedly because Bruce chose to work in Hong Kong rather than Hollywood.
Another theory points the finger at Taiwanese actress Betty Ting Pei – from whose home Bruce was rushed to Queen Elizabeth Hospital – accusing her of poisoning the martial arts movie star.
Of course none of these fanciful theories have any grounding or basis in reality. Nor do they hold up to any amount of scrutiny.
Nonetheless they persist in the cultural memory and remain a topic that will be no doubt be revisited for years to come, as it has been for the 45 years since his passing.
What Actually Happened?
On 10 May 1973 Bruce collapsed while recording the dubbing for Enter the Dragon in Hong Kong. He suffered seizures and headaches and was taken to hospital where he was diagnosed with a cerebral oedema.
This incident proved to be the foreshadowing of his death on 13 July 1973. In the afternoon of that fateful day he went with friend and movie producer Raymond Chow to the home of Betty Ting Pei, where they went over the script for Lee’s next feature film Game of Death.
Chow left for a dinner appointment and when Bruce complained of a headache Betty gave him the painkiller Equagesic, a mix of aspirin and the tranquiliser meprobamate.
Bruce then went for a nap and did not wake-up for dinner. Neither Betty, Raymond nor the doctor they summoned could resuscitate Bruce. When he was finally taken to hospital he was declared dead on arrival at just 32 years old.
Conspiracy theories aside, in the years since his passing there have been other, more scientific arguments put forward.
Dr James Filkins of the Cook County medical examiner’s office in Chicago believes Bruce may have died of sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP), a condition which was only recognised in the 1990s.
Considering the seizures Lee suffered it seems like a plausible theory. SUDEP can be caused by overwork and stress, both of which Bruce was dealing with in the build-up to the release of Enter the Dragon. He was well-known for his tireless work ethic, losing 15% of his body weight in the last two months of his life, weighing just 54kg when he died.
Dr Filkins also notes that allergic reactions to drugs usually involve an anaphylactic reaction with an accompanying swelling in the neck, something that was absent in Bruce’s autopsy.
A biography of Bruce Lee released this year claims a different cause of death. Entitled Bruce Lee: A Life, the film is based on the book by writer Matthew Polly who claims Bruce was a victim of heatstroke. Polly also cites the symptoms of his first collapse in May as proof of this.
True enough, seizures, convulsions, sweating, high temperature and vomiting are all symptoms of heatstroke and match those Bruce experienced in that first episode.
He had also had the sweat glands in his armpits removed – he thought sweaty armpits would look unsightly on screen – making his body more prone to overheating.
Ultimately though, neither these nor the multitude of other theories, conspiracy or otherwise, carry much weight.
In fact, rather than speculating on how he died, maybe we could better serve his memory by appreciating the great works of film he left of us, as well as his philosophy on life and martial arts.